By Chase Kahn
After an inventful and ineffaceable title sequence, Benny (Alden Ehrenreich) is wandering down the desolate black and white Buenos Aires streets searching for his brother’s home. He has the address tucked in his hands, pearly white to match his spotless sailing uniform. In effect, he’s searching not just for his brother, but for his mystified and unattainable life.
His brother is Angelo (played by Vincent Gallo), a mysterious, hotheaded and secretive ex-writer who now goes by the name Tetro. Immediately, Benny wants to know what happened – why hasn’t he seen his brother since he went away oh so many years ago? -- but Tetro isn’t so forthcoming. He tells Benny to leave it alone and drop it because he’s no longer a part of it. But come on, things wouldn’t be so dramatic if he did, and believe me, Tetro is nothing if not overly dramatic.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film is a slightly drawl and trite familial melodrama full of secrets, love, bonding and betrayal. An engaging (if long-winded), mindful and most interesting film, Tetro is an operatic sensationalist drama that wears its heart on its sleeve even as it somewhat wears thin. However, it’s so visually and artistically keen that any faults it may have appear like a faint memory in one of Tetro’s numerous flashbacks.
One day, while rifling through his trunks, sitting high atop heavy armoires and adorned with plastic sheaths, Benny learns that Tetro has written a stage play -- it's based on his life, therefore Benny's childhood. Secrets are uncovered, bonds are broken and formed and the past is brought to life through his play, titled "Wander Lust", which doesn't have an ending yet. Benny is waiting for it so he can finish the story and therefore, his life.
It becomes a potent metaphor through the remainder of the film, bringing to light the fact that Tetro and Benny are both living – and always have been – in some sort of a heavily dramatized play about family, past, belonging and truth.
After all, Tetro is shot in vivid black and white with an emphasis on camera placement and lighting. It’s the film’s defining quality and it's something beautiful to behold. Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Youth Without Youth) lenses the film to Coppola's arresting images and the two create some undeniably indelible compositions. A moth battering around a light bulb and a play of "Fausta", in which Benny, Tetro and his girlfriend Miranda attend, are certainly images and sounds that I can't get out of my head.
Alden Ehrenreich’s performance as Benny left a lasting impression as well, but for all the wrong reasons. He can’t carry the weight of the dramatic scenes, coming off as whiny or squeaky and he can’t bring any subtle charm to the character without resorting to a sly smile repeated on one-too many occasions.
Vincent Gallo as the titular character is a more interesting brew. He displays the brutish and hellish temper of Tetro with shit-storming authenticity as we see his eyeballs steady and his lips tighten, ready to implode. During a key flashback sequence at a mental institution pass-the-mike routine, we can’t help but feel the weight of the image upon his frail existence and unshaven cheeks, of the moth bouncing off the light, making a metallic ticking sound as it does, as if someone was tapping a needle.
Coppola (now 70) has long since resided from his glory days to now being a hermit of independent experimentation. He's in full swing right now with Tetro, a film with a lot of great ideas that ultimately feels fundamentally archaic in its writing. It’s not a home run by any means, but it’s an interesting film by one of our masters of old.